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In May, longtime teachers union organizer Brandon Johnson ascended to the Chicago mayor’s office, becoming one of the most progressive leaders of any major city in the United States.
Just months before the election, Johnson was polling at 3%, far behind the frontrunners in the race, and had little name recognition. “God bless. Brandon Johnson is not going to be the mayor,” said then-incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot on January 21, just over a month before the first round of the election.
Johnson’s win against the city’s most formidable political insiders, including former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas who he faced head-to-head in the second round of voting, represented a rejection of the status quo for a city that’s facing crises ranging from the pandemic to police abuse to pay-to-play politics and decades of disinvestment in Black and Latino communities.
“We can reject the false choices that have been presented to us for too long,” Johnson, a former Cook County commissioner and middle-school teacher, said during his victory speech on April 4. “We get to do it for everyone, Chicago. We don’t have to choose between toughness and compassion, between the care of our neighbors and keeping our people safe. If tonight is proof of anything, it is proof that those old, false choices do not serve this city any longer.”
One hundred days into his term, Johnson has begun to shepherd key progressive policy priorities through the City Council, built relationships with President Joe Biden and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and taken steps to ameliorate the city’s migrant crisis that’s been spurred by GOP officials around the country. He has also courted some amount of controversy with some of his staffing decisions, including the hiring of interim police superintendent Fred Waller (and later, into the permanent role, Larry Snelling) and the firing of public health commissioner Allison Arwady.
The 100-day milestone, though arbitrary, has traditionally been a temperature check on the policy priorities and leadership style of a new administration that has moved from campaigning to governing. To better understand Johnson’s first 100 days in office and what it could spell for the next four years — or longer—In These Times spoke to more than a dozen movement leaders, elected officials, researchers and political strategists, including Johnson himself.
“We’ve laid a real clear foundation that we’re going to need in order to build a better, stronger, safer Chicago, and we’ve done that in the collaborative spirit which we promised we would do,” Johnson tells In These Times.
In a late August interview, the new mayor recounted some of his biggest accomplishments, including advancing the Treatment Not Trauma proposal and creating new deputy mayor positions related to immigration, community safety and labor rights. Johnson also worked with the business community and the Bring Chicago Home Coalition on a proposed real estate transfer tax that would combat homelessness by lowering the real estate transfer tax for most homebuyers and raising it for properties over $1 million.
His campaign and transition report by his transition team have promised big ideas that, if followed through, could catapult Chicago into the national spotlight as a promising experiment in progressive governance, especially as the administration looks to repair long-standing racial inequities across the city.
With progressives previously on the outside of the political sphere and now obtaining leadership positions, Chicago’s left-labor movement is learning what co-governance and accountability look like when one of their own is in power.
Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates, and one of Johnson’s closest allies, says that he is integral to the city’s grassroots movement, even on the Fifth Floor. “I don’t think he actually gets enough credit for that,” she tells In These Times. “He’s not just an elected official. He is a proven organizer and movement leader … He is a part of our movement DNA.”
“A historic moment”
In July, Johnson’s nearly 400-person transition team, composed of activist, civic and business leaders, released a 223-page report detailing policy recommendations under eleven major themes, including arts and culture, housing, transportation and environmental justice.
The report was not reviewed or approved by the administration before its publication, but since then, 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa — Johnson’s new City Council floor leader — tells In These Times the report has been “our north star.”
The transition report came out several weeks after Johnson’s inauguration, but Amisha Patel, former executive director of Grassroots Collaborative and senior advisor to the transition, says the team “really wanted to do it right.”
The advisory report makes a number of recommendations based on Johnson’s campaign promises including reopening mental health clinics and reinstating the Department of Environment that was closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Other recommendations are more ambitious and would, if implemented, place Chicago at the forefront of national progressive politics. These ideas include guaranteed college funding for children born in Chicago, a public bank to address the lack of access to loans in marginalized communities, reparations for descendants of enslaved Black people, teams of ward-level Workers’ Rights Community Navigators to promote unionization efforts at businesses across the city, as well as universal childcare.
During the mayoral race, John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union representing police officers, threatened mass resignations and predicted “blood in the streets” if Johnson were to win. Five months after this statement, that has not been the case.
Instead, it appears that police and abolitionists are joining in similar conversations.
“Things took the time that it did because we had abolitionists and members of the police department in the same committees,” Patel explains. “We had a range of perspectives that had just not been seen before to get at complex issues of community safety.”
Johnson has said that his approach to public safety is focused on addressing the root causes of crime and poverty by, for example, increasing available jobs for youth, reopening the mental health clinics shuttered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012, and diverting some 911 calls from police to mental health clinicians. Critics have falsely charged that Johnson wants to “defund the police,” though he has said he will maintain the department’s nearly $1.9 billion budget in the coming year.
In his first 100 days, Johnson has steadily pushed forward with Treatment Not Trauma, a grassroots coalition-led proposal to replace police officers with mental health clinicians for 911 calls relating to mental health crises and homelessness. In July, the ordinance had its first hearing in front of the Health and Human Relations Committee, now chaired by Treatment Not Trauma sponsor 33rd Ward Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez.
Criminal justice reformers have also been calling for the creation of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, which would commemorate survivors of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew,” who tortured and wrung false confessions from more than 100 Black men from 1972 to 1991. The memorial has been stalled since former Mayor Rahm Emanuel approved it in 2015, but Johnson announced in June that he had secured a $6.8 million grant for its construction, in addition to city-provided funding and land.
“This is a historic moment in the city of Chicago,” says Aislinn Pulley, co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center. “For the first time, we’re now able to begin concrete movement on the creation of a public memorial. Rahm Emanuel refused to meet around the memorial [and] did not answer any requests for meetings. Lori [Lightfoot] campaigned on it and then did nothing.”
Crime is one issue that may have a deep impact on Johnson’s administration and so far he has been praised by some progressives for his responses to “teen takeovers,” gatherings of youth people downtown — mediated by social media — that have been chaotic and sometimes violent. After one such night in April, Johnson, then the mayor-elect, called the activity “unacceptable” but cautioned against “[demonizing] youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.” After a similar occurrence in August, Johnson chastened a reporter for using the term “mob action,” saying that “[referring] to children as, like, baby Al Capones is not appropriate.”
One tough spot for Johnson came earlier this summer when stories from WBEZ and South Side Weekly uncovered that his interim police superintendent, Fred Waller, had been accused of domestic abuse in 1994 and 2006, though the charges were “not sustained.”
Karla Altmayer, chair of Johnson’s 16-member transition team taskforce on gender-based violence, sent a letter to Johnson earlier this month criticizing his appointment of Waller and asking for a meeting. “By supporting and defending interim Superintendent Fred Waller in these credible allegations of domestic violence, the city is communicating to survivors that if people in power aren’t accountable, no one will be,” she wrote.
In an emailed statement to In These Times two weeks later, Altmayer praised the “swift responses” of Johnson’s administration to the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) that came after she sent the letter. The administration had invited the transition team’s GBV taskforce to submit questions to the police chief candidates, and she said that Johnson will soon meet with the taskforce to discuss the city’s strategic plan to combat GBV.
Waller was only an interim and Johnson has since selected Larry Snelling, the Chicago Police Department counterterrorism bureau chief, as the superintendent — a choice praised by many aldermen as well as FOP president Catanzara.
One complication could be that Snelling appears supportive of the use of Shotspotter, a gunshot detection technology criticized by the former inspector general for its inaccuracy. Snelling was vocally supportive of the technology during a November 2021 City Council hearing. Johnson vowed during the campaign to end the city’s use of Shotspotter. Its contract extension, which was quietly brokered by Mayor Lightfoot, expires February 2024.
Mayor Johnson has also had to contend with limited resources to support the more than 13,000 migrants that have come to Chicago since the Republican governors of Texas and Florida started sending them on buses to immigrant-friendly sanctuary cities last summer.
Since then, thousands of migrants have been placed in temporary shelters and police stations, both of which have been plagued by overcrowding and hygiene issues, with long waitlists for more long-term housing. In one extreme case, a police officer was accused of raping and impregnating a young woman at a police station in North Lawndale. (The migrants were moved out of the police station, and the investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability stalled because they couldn’t identify or find the alleged victim.)
Xavier Perez, an assistant professor of criminology at DePaul University, says the fault lies with the federal government for passing the humanitarian and financial responsibilities onto “welcoming” cities, some of whom are so overburdened that they’re also sending buses to Chicago.
“I’m working with all expediency to address the crisis that I inherited,” Johnson tells In These Times, adding that 90 buses have arrived since his inauguration on May 15. He says he has collaborated with all levels of government to open 10 additional shelters, beyond the five that existed before he was sworn in. He did not give a specific answer to when he expected all the migrants living in police stations would be moved to shelters.
On his first day in office, Johnson signed an executive order creating a deputy mayor for immigrant, migrant, and refugee rights, in addition to positions for community safety and labor relations. Beatriz Ponce De León was appointed to the immigrant, migrant, and refugee rights position after working as assistant director of family and community services for the Illinois Department of Human Services.
Veronica Castro, deputy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, calls the new position a “step in the right direction” and praises the administration for its collaboration with Gov. Pritzker’s office. Under Lightfoot, Castro felt that the city and state had been operating “parallel” shelter and housing programs with little to no communication.
Conversely, Castro says that with Johnson’s administration, “when we made recommendations [about] how to welcome and support new arrivals coming in, I felt that there is somebody on the other end that is actually hearing that and trying to do right by that.”
During a recent City Council committee meeting, 20th Ward Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor, whose ward is sheltering more than 500 migrants at the closed Wadsworth Elementary, said the system for housing migrants has been opaque and inequitable, with Black and Latino communities shouldering more of the responsibility than white communities. Taylor criticized the Johnson administration for not discussing the crisis with President Biden while he was in town celebrating the announcement that Chicago will host Democratic National Convention in 2024.
U.S. House Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.), whose district is 47% Latino, says the administration has inherited a situation in which communities feel pitted against each other and that Johnson has to walk a careful line. “As we see Abbott and other governors and certainly Congress continue to use immigrants as a scapegoat to divide people, [Johnson] has to be the leader that says loud and clear, ‘We will invest in Black communities and we will support immigrant families.’”
A union town
Another issue facing Johnson’s administration is public education. On that front, Johnson has extended the paid parental leave policy for CPS employees to 12 weeks, which is in line with the city of Chicago employee policy. He also cleaned house in the Chicago Board of Education, replacing all but one member with education justice organizers and nonprofit leaders. Jianan Shi, former executive director of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, and a former teacher himself, was appointed Board President.
The new mayor’s association with CTU is a boon for the union, which played a large role in helping get Johnson elected. “We brought the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union together. We haven’t seen that in a very long time, if ever,” Johnson tells In These Times.
CTU’s contract with CPS expires in August 2024, and Davis Gates expects the bargaining process with Johnson to be totally different from previous efforts. “We [will] start from a place of agreement. I think that’s a strong starting place. Every negotiation I’ve been a part of, we’ve never started from a place of agreement.”
Davis Gates sees the tenets outlined in the mayor’s transition report, which includes the development of a permanent youth council, creation of social justice-related curricula featuring leaders like Marion Stamps and Rudy Lozano, and a repudiation of the “school choice” movement, as aligned with the union’s values. The sticking point in the coming years will be funding. “This is generational disinvestment, and we’re going to have to be very clear about the need to find that investment for our school community,” she says.
Johnson has also made organized labor a priority for his administration. Loretto Hospital workers, represented by SEIU Healthcare, recently won a new contract after striking for 11 days over low wages, and Johnson was credited by SEIU for bringing the two sides together.
On August 21, Johnson appointed Bridget Early to the newly created deputy mayor of labor relations role, which is set to work with employers across the city to advance and defend workers’ rights. Early has worked as a director for the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems, the National Public Pension Coalition and the Chicago Federation of Labor.
Thomas Ogorzalek, co-director of the Chicago Democracy Project at Northwestern University, says it will be crucial for Johnson to form and maintain close relationships with other elected officials, particularly Gov. Pritzker. “Having support from a very progressive governor like Pritzker is very important, both for getting funding to potentially do some of these projects so you don’t have to raise the taxes locally, and for getting backup from the state so if something doesn’t pass at the city level, maybe it can at the state level.”
At the federal level, Johnson and President Biden have so far appeared to be on good terms. Biden congratulated Johnson the night of his win, and Johnson endorsed Biden for the 2024 presidential election. This month, at the request of Johnson, Pritzker and other state officials, Biden approved a disaster declaration for Cook County to allow residents whose homes were flooded during a major summer storm access to relief programs.
Illinois State Sen. Robert Peters praised the inroads Johnson has made with other levels of government. “I think there’s a sense of peace between city, county and state that I cannot recall in my adult life.”
In 2015, Ramirez-Rosa was elected to City Council as an insurgent candidate and became the only democratic socialist to serve in the body. Eight years later, he is now both Johnson’s floor leader and chair of the powerful zoning committee. The makeup of Chicago’s City Council has also changed, becoming younger, more diverse and more progressive, including a six-member Democratic Socialist Caucus. The progressive caucus, Ramirez-Rosa notes, has swelled to 19, though it will still require negotiation to carry progressive policies over the 26-person threshold for a majority.
There has been progress on many of the policy proposals stalled under Lightfoot. Ramirez-Rosa says this year’s priorities will include eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped workers (which is about $5-$7 lower than the standard minimum wage for the city) and moving forward Treatment Not Trauma and Bring Chicago Home. Ramirez-Rosa also says the administration has created a working group to explore the idea of municipal snow clearance.
In the coming weeks, Johnson is expected to unveil his proposal for a 2024 budget. Approving the budget is often the first major challenge for new mayors, especially as the City Council attempts to shed its reputation as a “rubber stamp.” It was during the vote on the 2020 budget that Mayor Lightfoot started playing hardball with the council and created a website shaming some aldermen for voting “no” on the budget. This move created a hostile dynamic with the council that Johnson will likely try to avoid. So far, Johnson has been praised by even the most conservative members of the council for his temperament.
For many progressive leaders, this moment is without precedent. “Doing actions on the mayor used to be the ceiling of what we could do because they weren’t going to listen to us no matter what we did,” says Emma Tai, the former director of United Working Families. “[Now] that’s the floor of what we can do. I don’t think we even know the ceiling.”
Tai, who was on the executive committee of the transition team, used the recent resignation of Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara as an example. “For housing advocates, the question is not just how much of this one piece of legislation or what part of the budget are you trying to have some influence over? Now we also get to ask, ‘Who do you want to be commissioner? … What’s our shortlist?’”
Many abolitionists are cautiously optimistic about the policies that a Johnson administration can exact, even if they’re not ideologically identical to him. “He is a Democrat and I am not a Democrat,” says Pulley of the Chicago Torture Justice Center. “I would love it if he moved to become an anti-capitalist. I don’t have a pretense he will move there, but I do have hope we can build a movement where that is possible.”
Pulley believes Chicago can become a “playbook” for other cities to shed neoliberal policies, including by reinvesting in public education and mental health services. At the same time, she cautions against complacency. “I think there’s danger for the movement to feel like there isn’t more work that needs to be done and that having Brandon in the mayor’s office is enough.”
Patel says expectations from the organizing community are high and that there is more to be done. “It’s on community organizers to build the popular demand for those platforms. The mayor’s not going to be able to do it all. He’s got the doors open and the windows of possibility are open, but we have to push and organize and build and engage enough people to make sure we win on those ideas.”
Co-governance — one of Johnson’s main campaign tenets — and accountability are still open questions for the city’s left-wing movements. Tai says that when evaluating the project of co-governance, “the measure that I look at is, ‘Are we wielding our power in such a way that we’re building more power for next time?’”
Ultimately, as many movement leaders and grassroots organizers told In These Times, the issues that progressives are trying to address have been in the making for generations.
Davis Gates of the CTU even questioned the value of the 100-day benchmark in evaluating Johnson’s performance, adding it will take “multiple terms” to undo the harm that working-class Chicago have faced under previous administrations.
“As a teacher, I am calling into question what rubric we are using to evaluate something that’s new and different than what we have seen before.”
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